Satisfaction View Of The Atonement

In Christian theology, the satisfaction view of the atonement is the dominant theory of the meaning of the death of Jesus Christ taught in Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed circles since the Middle Ages. Theologically and historically, the word “satisfaction” does not mean gratification as in common usage, but rather “to make restitution,” mending what has been broken, or paying back what was taken. It is thus connected with the legal concept of balancing out an injustice. Drawing primarily from the works of Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109 C.E.), the satisfaction theory teaches that Christ suffered as a substitute on behalf of humankind satisfying the demands of God’s honor by his infinite merit. Anselm regarded his satisfaction view of the atonement as a distinct improvement over the older ransom theory of the atonement, which he saw as inadequate. Anselm’s theory was a precursor to the refinements of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin which introduced the idea of punishment to meet the demands of divine justice.

Good Friday Easter Jesus Christ Jesus Christ

Jesus Christ statue

Development of the doctrine

The classic Anselmian formulation of the satisfaction view should be distinguished from penal substitution. Both are forms of satisfaction doctrine in that they speak of how Christ’s death was satisfactory, but penal substitution and Anselmian satisfaction offer different understandings of how Christ’s death was satisfactory. Anselm speaks of human sin as defrauding God of the honor he is due. Christ’s death, the ultimate act of obedience, brings God great honor. As it was beyond the call of duty for Christ, it is more honor than he was obliged to give. Christ’s surplus can therefore repay our deficit. Hence Christ’s death is substitutionary; he pays the honor instead of us. Penal substitution differs in that it sees Christ’s death not as repaying God for lost honor but rather paying the penalty of death that had always been the moral consequence for sin (e.g., Genesis 2:17; Romans 6:23). The key difference here is that for Anselm, satisfaction is an alternative to punishment, “The honor taken away must be repaid, or punishment must follow.” By Christ satisfying our debt of honor to God, we avoid punishment. In Calvinist Penal Substitution, it is the punishment which satisfies the demands of justice.

Another distinction must be made between penal substitution (Christ punished instead of us) and substitutionary atonement (Christ suffers for us). Both affirm the substitutionary and vicarious nature of the atonement, but penal substitution offers a specific explanation as to what the suffering is for: punishment.

Anselm links the atonement and the incarnation

Anselm of Canterbury first articulated the satisfaction view in his work, Cur Deus Homo?, whose title means “Why did God become a Man?.” The then-current ransom theory of the atonement held that Jesus’ death was paid as a ransom to Satan, allowing God to rescue those under Satan’s bondage. For Anselm, this solution was inadequate. Why should God the Son have to become a human to pay a ransom? Why should God owe anything at all to Satan?

Instead, Anselm suggested that we owe God a debt of honor: “This is the debt which man and angel owe to God, and no one who pays this debt commits sin; but every one who does not pay it sins. This is justice, or uprightness of will, which makes a being just or upright in heart, that is, in will; and this is the sole and complete debt of honor which we owe to God, and which God requires of us.” This debt creates essentially an imbalance in the moral universe; it could not be satisfied by God’s simply ignoring it. In Anselm’s view, the only possible way of repaying the debt was for a being of infinite greatness, acting as a man on behalf of men, to repay the debt of honor owed to God. Therefore, when Jesus died, he did not pay a debt to Satan but to God, His Father.

Anselm did not state specifically whether Jesus’ payment of debt was for all of mankind as a group or for individual people, but his language leans in the former direction. Thomas Aquinas‘ later developments specifically attribute the scope of the atonement to be universal in nature.

Thomas Aquinas codifies the substitution theory

Thomas Aquinas elucidated the atonement in the Summa Theologica into what is now the standard Catholic understanding of atonement. He explored the nature of sin, debt, punishment, and grace. In his section on man, he considered whether punishment is good and appropriate, and he concluded that:

  1. punishment is a morally good response to sin,
  2. “Christ bore a satisfactory punishment, not for His, but for our sins,” and;
  3. substitution for another’s sin is entirely possible.

This is Aquinas’ major difference with Anselm. Rather than seeing the debt as one of honor, he sees the debt as a moral injustice to be righted.

In his section on the Incarnation, Aquinas argues that Christ’s death satisfies the penalty owed by sin, and that it was Christ’s Passion specifically that was needed to pay the debt of man’s sin. For Aquinas, the Passion of Jesus provided the merit needed to pay for sin: “Consequently Christ by His Passion merited salvation, not only for Himself, but likewise for all His members,” and that the atonement consisted in Christ’s giving to God more “than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race.” In this way, Aquinas articulated the formal beginning of the idea of a superabundance of merit, which became the basis for the Catholic concept of the Treasury of Merit (see Indulgences). Aquinas also articulated the ideas of salvation that are now standard within the Catholic church: that justifying grace is provided through the sacraments; that the condign merit of our actions is matched by Christ’s merit from the Treasury of Merit; and that sins can be classified as mortal and venial. For Aquinas, one is saved by drawing on Christ’s merit, which is provided through the sacraments of the church.

Aquinas’ view may sound like penal substitution, but he is careful to say that he does not intend substitution to be taken in legal terms:

“If we speak of that satisfactory punishment, which one takes upon oneself voluntarily, one may bear another’s punishment…. If, however, we speak of punishment inflicted on account of sin, inasmuch as it is penal, then each one is punished for his own sin only, because the sinful act is something personal. But if we speak of a punishment that is medicinal, in this way it does happen that one is punished for another’s sin.” (Thomas Aquinas)

What he means by “satisfactory punishment,” as opposed to punishment that is “penal,” is essentially the Catholic idea of penance. Aquinas refers to the practice saying, “A satisfactory punishment is imposed upon penitents” and defines this idea of “Satisfactory Punishment” (penance) as a compensation of self-inflicted pain in equal measure to the pleasure derived from the sin. “Punishment may equal the pleasure contained in a sin committed.”

Aquinas sees penance as having two functions. First to pay a debt, and second “to serve as a remedy for the avoidance of sin.” In this later case, he says that “as a remedy against future sin, the satisfaction of one does not profit another, for the flesh of one man is not tamed by another’s fast” and again “one man is not freed from guilt by another’s contrition.” Since according to Aquinas “Christ bore a satisfactory punishment, not for His, but for our sins.” The penance Christ did has its effect in paying the “debt of punishment” incurred by our sin.

This concept is similar to Anselm’s view that we owe a debt of honor to God, with a critical difference: While Anselm said we could never pay this debt because any good we could do was owed to God anyway, Aquinas said we could make up for our debt through acts of penance. Unlike Anselm, Aquinas claimed that we can make satisfaction for our own sin, and that our problem is not our personal sin, but original sin. As Aquinas said, “original sin… is an infection of human nature itself, so that, unlike actual sin, it could not be expiated by the satisfaction of a mere man.” Thus Christ, as the “second Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45), does penance in our place—paying the debt of our original sin.

Calvin attributes atonement to individuals

John Calvin

John Calvin

John Calvin (d. 1564 C.E.) was the first systematic theologian of the Protestant Reformation. As such, he wanted to solve the problem of Christ’s atonement in a way that did justice to the Scriptures and Church Fathers, while still rejecting the need for condign merit. His solution was that Christ’s death on the cross paid not a general penalty for humanity’s sins, but a specific penalty for the sins of individual people. That is, when Jesus died on the cross, his death paid the penalty at that time for the sins of all those who are saved. One obviously necessary feature of this idea is that Christ’s atonement is limited in its effect only to those whom God has chosen to be saved, since the debt for sins was paid at a particular point in time (at the crucifixion).

For Calvin, this also required drawing on Augustine’s earlier theory of predestination. Additionally, in rejecting the idea of penance, Calvin shifted from Aquinas’ idea that satisfaction was penance (which focused on satisfaction as a change in humanity), to the idea of satisfying God’s wrath. This ideological shift places the focus on a change in God, who is propitiated through Christ’s death. The Calvinist understanding of the atonement and satisfaction is penal substitution: Christ is a substitute taking our punishment and thus satisfying the demands of justice and appeasing God’s wrath so that God can justly show grace.

John Stott has stressed that this must be understood not as the Son placating the Father, but rather in Trinitarian terms of the Godhead initiating and carrying out the Atonement, motivated by a desire to save humanity. Thus the key distinction of penal substitution is the idea that restitution is made through punishment.

Hence, for Calvin, one is saved by becoming united to Christ through faith. At the point of becoming united with Christ through faith, one receives all the benefits of the atonement. However, because Christ paid for sins when he died, it is not possible for those for whom he died to fail to receive the benefits: the saved are predestined to believe.

Further Developments

The Governmental view of the atonement, developed by Hugo Grotius, was a modification of Calvin’s view, although it represents in some ways a return to the general nature of Anselm’s theory. According to Grotius, Christ’s death was an acceptable substitute for punishment, satisfying the demands of God’s moral government. In this view, in contrast to Calvin, Christ did not specifically bear the penalty for humanity’s sins; nor did he pay for individual sins. Instead, his suffering demonstrated God’s displeasure with sin and what sin deserves at the hands of a just Governor of the universe, enabling God to extend forgiveness while maintaining divine order. The Governmental view is the basis for the salvation theories of Protestant denominations who stress freedom of the will as in Arminianism.

Other theories on the nature of Christ’s atonement such as the Moral Influence view, originally formulated by Pierre Abélard, can also be seen as opposed to the Substitutionary view.

Adapted from New World Encyclopedia

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